[Picture: 53-year-old Maria Angelica Beltran, the only female traveling supervisor in the Coast King Packing company, cuts lettuce alongside her workers in Gonzales, California. Photo by Marlyn Sanchez Nol]
Maria Angelica Beltran—a single mother of one—has spent the last 23 years in the fields of Salinas. It’s work that she has had since arriving from Jalisco, Mexico when she was 18 years old.
“I remember they had asked me if I wanted to work in the fields, and I always liked the fields even in Mexico,” Beltran said. “So I figured I would give it a try here, as well. I sort of just fell in love with it.”
Lacking a proper education, Beltran was content with the work, in part because she believed she was too incompetent to leave. According to the Cooperativa Campesina de California, 32 percent of all farmworkers in the United States are women, with 265,000 working in California’s fields.
Beltran, 53, works as an agricultural supervisor, a rarity in this male-dominated industry. It’s a position that she reached by having to “start from the bottom.”
For 15 years, Beltran cut and packed lettuce all while experiencing different aspects of the job. As her skills grew, her supervisors took notice.
“They slowly began asking me for help with different kinds of things: moving forklifts, moving buses, taking care of the group of workers for hours at a time. Eventually, I was offered the opportunity to become a traveling supervisor,” Beltran said. Since then, she has been the only female traveling supervisor in the Coast King Packing company.
Within her list of responsibilities, Beltran is in charge of a “squad” of workers made up of six different groups, totalling 18 to 23 workers. She oversees the quality and production of the lettuce cut and packed by these workers.
Yet, for the single mother, the year 2020 was unlike any other. “My biggest fear while working with my people over in Yuma that year was dying due to the virus. I was away from family and all alone, so if I died, I felt like no one would have known,” Beltran said.
Beltran emotionally recalled how she would leave her son every few months out of the year for work, agonizing whether that was the right decision. The sleepless nights came with “mother’s guilt” which she simply could not shake, because the thought of missing any aspect of her son’s life was intolerable.
“I always felt like I had to do the best for my son. I never wanted to feel like an absent mother, but I had to work in order to sustain us both,” Beltran said. “So with tears in my eyes and a hole in my heart, I pushed forward and prayed that my son would one day see why I had to sacrifice my presence in his life.”
Through the doubt and fear, Beltran continues to work as a supervisor, a role she has held for 18 years. Yet even with that lengthy experience, Beltran said not much could have prepared her for what she would have to endure.
“In my 18 years of experience as a supervisor, I had never felt that type of insecurity. I depend on my workers to get everything done. There is no work if there are no people, and so at some point the landscape did start to feel far too grim,” Beltran said.
Additionally, Beltran’s distress was fueled by all of the losses around her. She lost about four of her workers to COVID-19 during her work season in Yuma. She lost some friends, too.
“I had to continue to show up for work and give my workers a hope I myself didn’t even have for our future,” Beltran said.
The loss of hope and insecurity were both new feelings for Beltran, who had always tried to handle any situation as gracefully as she could, until she realized this was different. “It got to a point where it was only four of us working because everyone else had tested positive, and I remember I would call my bosses and ask them how I would get through this without healthy workers,” Beltran said. “But at the end of it all, we somehow did. We will never get our friends back, but at least we regained a morsel of hope and here we are today.”
Ultimately, like Judith Arellano Lozada (the housekeeper whose story was published in our June 2, 2022 issue), Beltran reached a point where she wondered whether she’d be out of a job. “After so many years in this job, that unpredictability was very difficult to come to terms with,” Beltran said.
Beltran said that the thought of looking elsewhere for work briefly crossed her mind. But those thoughts quickly left. She has come to love her work, the comradery she feels, the community she has built with her workers, and the empowerment it has brought to her life. The language barrier and the lack of a higher education always kept her from considering work beyond the fields. Retirement isn’t something Beltran sees in her future anytime soon, but admits that she may step down from her traveling supervisor position in about two years, if a position with less traveling is offered.
Still, a combination of her overwhelming desire to better herself within those same fields and the yearning to see her son obtain a college degree prevailed enough to surpass the long nights and the early morning shifts.
“I can now say I feel complete because I get to see my son walk across that stage in May with his college diploma in hand. I did it, I reached the biggest goal I had ever set for myself as a mother and it just made every single season in Yuma worth it,” Beltran said.
But throughout the long hours of picking and supervising, Beltran wasn’t alone.
Her sister Susana Figueroa—a single mother who looked after Beltran’s son while her sister was away in Yuma—immediately began to work in the fields when she came from Mexico at age 17.
“My sister asked me if I wanted to try it out and here we are 23 years later, because I liked earning money and I liked it,” Figueroa said. “Working in the fields at 17 was definitely different because I was used to something entirely different in Mexico.”
For three years, Figueroa picked lettuce. Then one day, one of her supervisors told her to get her bus license. “I remember I did not want to get my license but the supervisor just sent me out for it one day and I did it simply as a chore,” Figueroa said.
Despite the opportunity that work in the fields presented, Figueroa longed for a career away from the lettuce fields.
“When I got here I enrolled myself in English classes, I got my citizenship and I also got my GED because I wanted better. I wanted more,” Figueroa said. “Now that I only drive the bus, I thank god for that supervisor who prompted me to get my bus driving license because I no longer have to spend my days bent over in heat or rain for more than eight hours every single day,” Figueroa said.
But driving her fellow workers to the fields was something she had to balance with raising not only her own son, but watching over her sister’s son too.
“I almost felt an even bigger responsibility with my nephew over my own son because raising a teenager is not an easy task,” Figueroa said.
Figueroa is all too familiar with the challenges of raising a child. When her own son was young, he developed health issues that delayed his speech. “He constantly had ear problems and severe fevers that kept me up and I still had to show up to work because who was going to drive the workers there? Who was going to take my place on the line,” Figueroa said.
So when the pandemic began, Figueroa’s primary concern was staying healthy for her son. “People were all getting sick and while I wasn’t out there working side by side with them, at the end of the day they all got on the bus,” Figueroa said.
She did her best to remind everyone to keep their distance, to wash their hands and to wear their mask at all times, but she said it was impossible to control those individuals who did not believe in the virus.
“As someone who was sort of on the outside looking in, it was an almost paralyzing and frustrating fear to likely become sick because of my close contact with all the workers, lose my life or lose the only way I’d never known of earning money,” Figueroa said. “Some of the workers became upset with me because I strongly enforced the health regulations on my bus, but I had their best interest in mind.”
As difficult as the year 2020 was for Figueroa, it was hope that she clung to. “I couldn’t let my spirits spiral down a negative path, I simply had to get through the days as best I could.”
For now, Figueroa hopes to continue driving her bus for a few more years as a seasonal agricultural worker. “I think the reason I’ve stayed has had a lot to do with the fact that I can spend so much time with my son being that I don’t work all year and I can go visit my parents for months at a time,” she said. “I wouldn’t trade that for the world.”
Read part one here.
[The above story is by SF State journalism student Marlyn Sanchez Nol, who in Spring 2022 completed her capstone project in the JOUR 695 Senior Seminar class. The project looks inside the lives of Latina women working in the service and farmworking industries during the pandemic, and has been split into parts. The next and final installment of this series will be published on June 30. All quotes have been translated from Spanish to English by the author.]